Linear Thinking leads to Cyclical Reality

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”

— George Santayana

Many people feel that our society is falling apart and are putting great effort into bringing it back together. The problem is that when we are blind to the signs of real change, we tend to miss our target and over-correct. It is likely we will follow this same pattern in the next 10-15 years.

Generational research purports that history turns in specific cycles and by understanding those cycles we can predict what society might be like 10, 20 or even 50 years in the future. If that sounds something like hokey astrology to you, then you are probably a linear thinker. And linear thinkers are exactly what fuel the cycles that generational research is about.

The work of William Strauss and Neil Howe (including their books Generations, The Fourth Turning and Millennials Rising) all talk about the cycle of generations and the “turnings” or social periods that result from those generations. Most of their work focuses on the generations in the United States, but their theories apply elsewhere as well. The reason they apply so well in the US is that we, as a society, tend to be very linear in our thinking, which creates higher highs and lower lows in our social changes.
If you consider the chart I created to describe the cycles of generations:

basic-generations-chart

You can see a red line that curves up and down on the chart. This is meant to describe the overall cohesiveness of society during the various turnings (High, Awakening, Unraveling and Crisis). At the top (for example, in 1955) society is very cohesive, with a singular worldview that tends to be very positive. At the bottom society is fractured, with complex worldviews that tend to be very negative. We have been at the bottom of this curve for a bit, but things are changing now (as the curve starts to rise during the crisis) but our linear thinking makes it hard for us to see that possibility. Our perception might look more like this:

linearchart

One example of this comes from Strauss and Howe’s book “Millennials and the Pop Culture” (which I highly recommend). Early on in the book they have a “quiz” about the trends occurring amongst American youth. This table is a shortened excerpt of that quiz. For each factor you are encouraged to state how you think the factor has trended since 1995:

Factor Up Unchanged Down
Fatal shootings in school
Abortion rate, teen wome under age 18
Violent crime rate, teens aged 14 to 19
Suicide rate, children/teens aged 18 and under
Stranger abductions of children

So what would you guess for each of these factors (the full list in the book is much longer)?

The answers are:

Factor Up Unchanged
Down
Fatal shootings in school
X
Abortion rate, teen wome under age 18
X
Violent crime rate, teens aged 14 to 19
X
Suicide rate, children/teens aged 18 and under
X
Stranger abductions of children
X

How did you do? Many people in our society would guess the exact opposite: that all these factors have been, and are, increasing. Part of that is because of media reporting, but the larger responsibility is the fact that we can’t help extrapolating in a straight line from our past. In the years BEFORE 1995 we saw a consistent increase in the factors mentioned in the chart. Because of this we assume that this trend will continue even when the statistics tell us otherwise.

This tendency to believe that when things are bad that they are only getting worse creates a strange dynamic in society. The feeling that our society continues to fall apart make many people (particularly young people such as the Millennial generation born 1982-2005) fight hard to change the direction of society. This is important and admirable, but failing to recognize when change is actually occurring makes it so we overshoot our target.

A good example is the Awakening of the 1960’s. The rebellion by the Boomers (born 1943-1960) against the “establishment” (the GI Generation born 1901-1924) started the fragmentation of society. This continued for the next 20+ years and got more extreme at every turn because we failed to recognize that society had indeed changed! Many people continued to push for further change, for further breaking down of institutions and for further individual freedoms. The pendulum swung completely to the other side, and then well beyond! Because the rebellious Boomers (and pragmatic X’ers) refused to recognize the damage that this breakdown was causing, it went too far. And this was caused by linear thinking that said, “We need to break down every institution and rule to the point there are none left that anyone can trust”.

The same thing will happen again as part of this crisis, but in the opposite direction. As people pull together to deal with the heightening crisis, we will become more cohesive as a society. But the fears fueled by so many years of institutions being challenged will make organizations and individuals so passionate that they will shoot way past the balance point. We will come out the other side an extremely ordered and cohesive society, but it will be TOO ordered, TOO singular and it will fuel the next rebellion.

This is the reason I believe understanding the generational cycles is so important. Accepting the cyclical nature of society gives us perspective on current and future events. Being able to see when change is occurring is difficult, but it will definitely help us avoid the extreme highs and lows which are caused by linear thinking.

Does Generation Jones Exist?

A recent article in USA Today has popularized the concept of a “Generation Jones” born between 1954 and 1965. The idea is that there is a generation between The Boomers (born 1943-1960) and Generation X (born 1961-1981) that has traits of both but does not really feel it belongs to either. Although the concept is gaining in popularity as many people born during the Jones timeframe feel it resonates with them, I wonder if the concept really has much value.
The dates I mention on this blog for the timing of generations is drawn from the work of Neil Howe and William Strauss, who are well known for their work on generations. Their landmark book “The Fourth Turning” gives clear definitions of the cycle of generations and how they have evolved in the US over the last 500 years (going back to England). The value of their research is partially in understanding our personal roots (“Oh, now I understand why my Boomer friend acts like that…”) but more importantly in understanding the direction of our society overall. My question about Generation Jones (and other divisions) is whether it helps in that effort or just confuses.
Here is a chart showing the roll of generations since 1900 (click on it for a bigger version):
jones1-01
According to Howe and Strauss, the marks between each generation are very clear and are based on their surveys of people born in these years. Each generation has a specific character, and these are shown on the chart by the various colors (the “archetype” for each of these generations is shown in the legend on the right). The concept is that, for the most part, each generation is about 20 years (give or take) and they follow each other in a specific pattern (Hero, Artist, Prophet, Nomad and so on). This pattern has (mostly) held true for the last 500 years of history, although some of the timeframes vary by a few years. If you accept this theory, at least in part, it allows you to extrapolate into the future based on the ages and attitudes of the generations that will be alive. I go into this concept further in my two presentations on turnings and generations (Part 1 and Part 2).
But it does seem fairly unlikely that EVERYONE born in 1961 would have an “X” attitude when compared with EVERYONE born in 1960, who would have a “Boomer” attitude. But I don’t think that is the point. Let’s look at an analogy.
In 1984 Ronald Reagan won a landslide victory in the race for the Presidency against Walter Mondale. Mondale got only 13 Electoral votes vs. 525 for Reagan, in what, I believe was the most lopsided victory in US History. But what was the Popular vote? The result was around 59% to 41%. Again a strong majority, but it does mean that over 37 Million people wanted Mondale to be president. Without going into how silly our electoral system is, I think there is a parallel to how we perceive the change in generations.
Let’s look at that chart again, but this time with Generation Jones put on top to show the span of years.
jones2-01
It falls fairly neatly in the span between Boomer and X’ers on Howe and Strauss’ system. There are probably many people in this period that feel like they favor either Boomer or X’er attitudes, or perhaps feel like they combine both. But the important thing is that a balance point is reached where over 50% of people would favor the attitude of one generation or the other. Just like in the 1984 elections, when grouped together this slight shift in the balance can have large effects on our overall society.
Perhaps the more accurate chart should look something like this:
jones3-01
With a gradual shift from one generation to the next, but a “tipping point” that results in a large perceived shift in generational attitude. This would explain the “Generation Jones” effect (along with other theories that break the generations down even further), as the period of transition lines up with that proposed generation:
jones4-01
I am a Gen-X’er (born 1966), and I fit the generational stereotype in that I am very pragmatic. The value I see in this generational research is in understanding where, as a society, we are going based on where we have been. Breaking down the system into smaller parts may make many feel they can identify with the roles more clearly, but I am not sure if it helps our predictive ability. So its not that I doubt that many people born between 1954 and 1965 feel they are caught between generations, its just that I am not sure that clarifies where our country is going in the future.

Pelosi and Eugenics: 1932 or 2009?

The clash of ideologies predicted by William Strauss and Neil Howe in “The Fourth Turning” is certainly hitting it’s stride now. I found an article that is particularly telling with regards to how these ideological battles are being fought. The article is supposedly about ridiculous spending items in the stimulus plan, but it has an interesting undercurrent.
Ruben Navarrette Jr. (a Generation X’er born between 1961 and 1981) writes about the “pork” in the plan here: http://www.cnn.com/2009/POLITICS/02/02/navarrette.stimulus/index.html
His commentary is mainly focused on Nancy Pelosi (who is part of the Silent Generation, born 1925-1942) and how she wanted to get birth control into the plan and had an extremely weak argument about why this should be in the plan. Navarrette draws a fascinating parallel to Margaret Sanger who was the founder of what became Planned Parenthood. Sanger was a controversial figure because she was in favor of Eugenics, which was a policy adopted by the Nazis to control racial makeup of society.
The interesting part of this is that he quotes a statement from Sanger from 1932:

“the doors of immigration closed to the entrance of certain aliens whose condition is known to be detrimental to the stamina of the race such as … [those] barred by the immigration laws of 1924.”

Here’s the generational connection: according to the turning of generations we are at the beginning of the crisis (started in about 2005), perhaps only a few years in. If we look just a few years into the start of the previous crisis (started in 1929) we would come up with the year 1932. It is interesting that Navarrette would use an argument from that period to go after Pelosi. The similarity to that period is that there was a huge ideological clash going on and there was a battle for control of public perception, just like today. Like in my previous posting where Gore was accused of trying to brainwash kids like Nazi youth, I think we will see more and more of this sort of reference over the next few years. Each side in the ideological battle will try to paint the other as the absolute enemy, and referring back to the enemy in our last major crisis (the Axis) will be a favorite tactic. Watch for it.
(if you are curious to learn more about the basics of generational research, go to “Start Here“. It includes links to Strauss and Howe’s original works as well as my interpretations).

Gore figures out how to upset Gen-X Parents

Want to know how to really upset parents of Millennials? Ask Al Gore, who managed to do just that by suggesting that teenagers not listen to their parents.
This video from Glenn Beck’s show, which was recorded by one of the kids at the conference, and her father (probably a Gen X’er) was upset enough to go on the show and talk about it. This has been making the rounds at lots of conservative blogs, many of which are comparing Gore’s statements with indoctrination of Nazi youth. As a die-hard liberal, I don’t buy the politics here, but I think the generational aspects are fascinating.
It’s not surprising that a Boomer (Gore) would suggest that kids rebel against their parents. That was the approach of the entire generation – knock down the institutions built by their parents (the GI Generation). But he made a HUGE mistake in thinking that this generation of kids (Millennials) and their parents (Gen-X and some Boomers) would react well to trying to divide them. Gore could definitely use some generational coaching.
This is very much part of the battle that will unfold over the next 10 to 15 years as various Boomers try to convince the Millennials to follow their particular ideology. Asking them to rebel against their parents is unlikely to work (as the Millennials are generally very close to their parents), but that won’t stop Boomers from trying. The reaction of the Gen X parent is very typical as we tend to be a fairly over-protective bunch and don’t want representatives of institutions telling us how to parent.
How could Gore have changed his approach to make it more likely to be heard? He could have appealed to the kids sense of purpose and tendency to want to work together. By saying something like, “We are all counting on you, the young people, to help change the world for the better. Your parents are counting on you. I am counting on you. The problems are big, but if we work together we will overcome them. And all of you will be a big part of that success.” By putting a positive message and tying their parents into the equation, he could have really gotten them on board. But, instead, he’s being accused of being an evil Nazi overlord.

Here’s the actual video:

Presidential Precedence: Obama is most like…

I did not follow the Presidential race/inauguration/early days very closely, but I did hear a few things that made me think about the generational aspects of President Obama. Leading up to the inauguration there were many references to former presidents, particularly FDR and Abraham Lincoln. There are some similarities between Obama, FDR and Lincoln, but they have little to do with leadership style. The similarities are in the character of the time that they came into power.
According to Neil Howe and William Strauss in their book “The Fourth Turning“, there are specific cycles in time which repeat on a regular basis. They work like this:

  • The First Turning is a High. After prevailing through a massive crisis, society is united and feels strong. An example of this period is the American High, 1946-1964
  • The Second Turning is an Awakening. Young people start to question the established values of the society. An example of this is the Conciousness Revolution, 1965-1984
  • The Third Turning is an Unraveling. Society starts to pull apart as the old establishment is broken down and values become fragmented. An example of this is the Culture Wars, 1985-2005
  • The Fourth Turning is a Crisis. Society is challenged by a massive crisis that requires everyone pull together to survive. An example of this is the Great Depression and WWII, 1929-1946. We are in a Crisis turning now as well (started in about 2005) and will probably remain so until about 2025 when it will come to a climax.

The similarity between Lincoln, FDR and Obama is that they all came into power during a crisis. But that is where the similarity ends, and another surprising relationship begins. Lincoln and FDR were both part of a generational archetype that was known as the “Prophet” generations, similar in character to the Baby Boomers. Lincoln was part of the Transcendental Generation and FDR was part of the Missionary Generation, both of which fit the Prophet archetype. Prophets are described as:

A Prophet generation grows up as increasingly indulged post-Crisis children, comes of age as the narcissistic young crusaders of an Awakening, cultivates principle as moralistic midlifers, and emerges as wise elders guiding the next Crisis. (from http://www.lifecourse.com)

Obama is not part of a Prophet Generation. Born in 1961, he is Generation X, which is a Nomad Generation:

A Nomad generation grows up as under protected children during an Awakening, comes of age as the alienated young adults of a post-Awakening world, mellows into pragmatic midlife leaders during a Crisis, and ages into tough post-Crisis elders

So when is the last time we had a pragmatic Nomad leading the country during a crisis? Take a look at this chart that shows the various generations and turnings visually (click on it to see a bigger version):

president-chart-052

The colors represent the archetypes of each generation, Yellow for Hero (GI Generation, Millennials), Green for Nomads (Lost, Gen X), Blue for Prophet (Missionary, Boomer) and Orange for Artist (Progressive, Silent). On the far left is the founding of the nation with George Washington as president, and on the far right is the current day, extrapolating Obama out for four years. I have more detailed versions of this data that I will put up in a future post, but this diagram gives an overview of the presidential generations through our brief history.
There are lots of things you might pick up from this chart, but if you look for the crisis periods (1940’s and 1860’s, WWII and Civil Wars respectively), you will see the previous two have mainly blue bars, meaning they were Prophet Generations (Lincoln and FDR). The previous crisis was The American Revolution (way over on the left side of the chart) and it had a green (Nomad) leader: George Washington.
So who does Obama most resemble in terms of generational character combined with social cycle? He is Generation X, which is a Nomad generation (green in the chart), leading during a crisis. The last time we saw that combination was our first president, George Washington, a Nomad leader during the crisis (American Revolution). What does this mean for his potential in office? Having a practical leader who pushes getting things done during a national crisis is something our country has not seen in over 200 years. I may examine that in a future post.

You can download a high-res PDF of this chart

How Generations Predict The Future

Part of understanding the cycle of generations is being able to see how the unique character of each generation varies as they pass through the stages of life.
I created a chart recently to describe the attitudes of various generations as they passed through time. In this webinar I describe the chart, piece by piece, to give a better understanding of the cycles involved. You may want to view Part 1 of Understanding Generations first. You can download the hi-res PDF version of the chart.

Generations Overview

A while back I created a slideshow that described the generations of the last 100 years. I used a chart in that presentation that helps visually represent the cycles, but I did not post the actual chart. So here it is in high resolution PDF. You can watch this slideshow to fully understand the chart:

GenX: Pragmatic or Disillusioned?

Gen-X’ers (born 1961 – 1980) had a relatively tough go of it when compared with other generations. In our early childhood we were either ignored or reviled (60’s and 70’s), and once we got to young adulthood, we were alienated and generally dismissed.
By the time we hit midlife (in just the last few years for the first Gen X’ers) we were a pretty jaded bunch. But we also had something unique from all those years attending the school of hard knocks: pragmatism. This generation, more than any other, does not have any illusions about the way the world is. We know what we need to do to get by in the world and we generally set about doing it. For the most part we don’t have high ideals or visions of world peace, but we understand how to get things done.
Barack Obama is an excellent example of this ethic. Although he talks often of ideas, hope and vision, these are more of a marketing effort to get the Boomers (born 1943-1960) and Millennials (born 1981 – 2005) to get on board with the direction. That, in itself, is a very pragmatic move. Rather than grabbing onto an ideology (as a Boomer might) he focuses instead on the goal and considers everything he needs to get done to get to the goal. Gen-X’ers are generally great marketers because they can craft the message to meet their market. I realize that there is some argument about whether Obama is Generation-X or not – more on that in a future post.
Individualism is also a hallmark of Generation-X. From our early years we had to go it alone, and most of us got pretty good at it. Later in life some of us are discovering that it can get pretty lonely without a cohesive peer group, and we are reaching out for community (see my previous article on Gen-X community). That, I believe, is the beginning of the disillusionment that also seems to nag our generation.

No Illusions lead to Disillusioned

The world that Gen-X grew up on was not desperate, not when you compare it with earlier cycles, such as the period between the Great Depression and the end of WWII. It was, however, a time of great discord and chaos. Institutions crumbled, and opinions became more varied and oppositional. It was near impossible to have a cohesive world-view, and the only one that worked well was Machiavellian: The ends justify the means. Gen-X knew better than to harbor any illusions about what was coming next, and that has led to a general sense of disillusionment.
In my own life I have played out this cycle in many ways. As a youth I was fired up about politics and ideology, but it quickly became apparent that the world had enough ideologists, and making a living should be my priority. After paying my own way through college and graduating at the age of 26, I started looking for job. My degree was in Fermentation Science, and I had several years of winemaking experience. But there were no jobs in winemaking up in Oregon where I was living, and the future started to look pretty bleak. What other skills did I have? Even with a college degree that was very vocational, my prospects were limited.
Eventually I found a position at a local brewpub that was starting up, and I became the head brewer for the place. It was a great job, and fit perfectly with my background, but I found that after just two years I was getting restless and bored with the work. By this point I had started a family (Caleb was born in 1996) and I knew I was going to be the main provider.
Thinking back through the early portion of my career I am struck by how on my own I was professionally. There was no institution or organization helping me find my way, and I am not sure if I would have accepted help from one anyway. Like most in my generation, I was used to going it alone. I certainly had lots of individuals that helped me along the way, but I never had the feeling of a team moving through life together (for more on this topic, see my post on Generational networks).
Fast-forward to today. I am 42 years old, with a wife and two kids (ages 8 and 12). I have worked for various companies over the years, taken time off, traveled the world with my family and found my own way for the most part. My career has been varied, from winemaking, brewing, teaching, programming, managing, selling and marketing. I am comfortable in many disciplines and work very independently, but I still don’t have a sense of belonging to a group with a greater purpose. Although some might think this is the perfect recipe for finding religion (and I did get laid off in January), I don’t think that is in the cards for me either.
Disillusionment is the obvious reaction to all of this. It’s not like some institution is going to fly in and save the day for me or anyone else in my generation. Depending on their needs there are companies out there who could really use my skills, but it won’t be about community. After many years of playing the market, I have not developed anywhere else to play. Live by the sword, die by the sword.
I won’t personally go the direction of disillusionment. It’s not in my nature. I see disillusionment as the combination of pragmatism and pessimism. It is a great source of depression really. My attitude is a combination of pragmatism and optimism, and always has been. Have a positive outlook, but look at everything with a clear eye. That is the gift that our generation has to offer.

10 Ways To Know if You are Gen-X

10 Ways To Know if you are Gen-X

  1. You know what a latch-key kid is. You probably were one.
  2. You can name at least 5 kiddie horror movies in addition to Rosemary’s Baby that all came out while you were a kid.
  3. You are certain Obama is a Gen-X’er.
  4. You know at least 5 people who were laid off in the last month.
  5. Friends your age call you an optimist because you don’t believe in Peak Oil or other doomsday scenarios.
  6. You shot Coca-Cola out your nose the first time you saw a “Baby on Board” sign in the back of a car
  7. You think the designation “Generation X” is stupid.
  8. You’ve had more jobs in the last 5 years than your parents had in their lifetimes.
  9. You don’t trust your kid’s teachers, especially if they are over 50 years old.
  10. You remember riding in a car at age 6 without at booster seat!

Networks by Generation

I think there is a big generational gap between how Gen-X (born 1961 – 1980) and Millennial’s (born 1981 ~ 2005) see their relationship networks. Since getting laid off in January, I have been reaching out to my professional network quite a bit. That got me to thinking about the nature of networks and how, as a Gen-X’er, I think of my network in a very specific way. Although sites like Facebook or LinkedIn allow you to catalog your relationship network, I am talking more about how I view the nature of that network.

Gen X Networks

To me, a relationship network is made up of a bunch of connected individuals. Although the network seems larger than the sum of its parts, I still see it as made up of a bunch of parts. The value of the network is in those parts and how they are connected to me. The whole glob of the network is just a little too much to think about and is not really worth the effort for me.

Six Degrees of Separation, a concept popularized in the 1990’s, demonstrates this view of networks very well. The idea is that any one individual can be linked to any other individual by no more than six discrete steps. The reason why I say it demonstrates the Gen-X view of networks is that it is about the individuals. Connected enough of them and you are connected to someone else. [it does not really matter how those people are connected, through a church group, through family, through coworkers, just the fact they are connected]

Let’s take an example from my professional network. Let’s say I am looking for work at Google. I consult Linkedin and find all the people in my network who currently work for Google. In my case, the closest are 2 degrees from me (although I know several former Google employees directly). So then I can pick on that looks like a good connection to a particular position and get introduced to them through someone who knows me directly. I have used this service in the past very effectively, but that is not the point. The key insight here is that the network, for me, looks like a bunch of discrete nodes connected by little lines.

It may sound terribly mercenary, but I often see each of these connections as direct one to one exchange of favors. If I do something for someone else in my professional network, I have created a connection which I can call upon later if needed. In a strange paradox, even if I ask a favor of someone else I have created a connection that can be called upon later. But these connections are again based on individual exchanges, having little to do with larger groups.

There are certainly exceptions to this view for X’ers, but I really do think they are exceptions. If you are an X’er, think of a time when you really felt like you were part of something larger than yourself or your immediate family. Probably not an easy thing (okay, the Obama campaign doesn’t count) for most of us. Even though I have been deeply involved in my kids’ schools, I still have a tough time seeing them as something larger than myself. My motivations are very personal, tied directly to the welfare of my children.

In a visual representation, it might look a little like this (that’s supposed to be me at the center):

relationship-networks-03

Where I am at the center, with my job contacts in blue, college contacts in red and hometown contacts in yellow. Maybe they know each other, maybe not. But when I go looking for work, I might lean on a college friend to give me a contact at a specific company from his network, which might span out into the job world:

relationship-networks-07

Of course, each of my contacts has their individual networks, but it quickly becomes just too much to keep track of, event the first circle looking something like this:

There is a bunch of overlap, but it is still about individuals. I can make my way almost anywhere on the network (six degrees of separation) but travel is always node to node.

relationship-networks-04

I think this is a fairly typical view of a relationship network for a Gen-X’er. I don’t think it carries over to the Millennial Generation.

Millennial Networks

My kids are both Millennial s but are quite young (ages 8 and 12), so most of what I am going to say here comes not from direct observation but rather to what I have read. So I am open to other possibilities.

The craze of social networking really took off with MySpace, a website that still looks like total chaos to an X’er like me. What is the point of that uncontrolled chatter? How do I know how well you know such-and-such, or what is the nature of your relationship? It’s just a big hairball of information to a discrete networker like me. Facebook was at least a little more palatable, with the ability to control the flow a little. But there is one concept in Facebook that I have never really gotten around to liking: networks.

The basis of joining up on Facebook is that you belong to some group (aka “network”). Years ago when I first tried to join I was denied because it was only for kids in college. Once they opened it up, I still needed say I was part of the “Portland, OR” network to get in. “What is the point of that?”, I thought. Portland was just where I lived, not a group that I was part of. I figured that Facebook misinterpreted geography and sociology in some way.

Of course, being part of specific networks is critical to Facebook (and many other social networking applications). It can determine whether I can converse with others on Facebook and what they can know about me. The nature of Facebook and Myspace reflect two major Millennial beliefs about networking. The first is teamwork and the second is what I call “The Noise is the Signal”.

Teamwork

One well-known characteristic of Millennial s is that they thrive on teamwork. They enjoy a sense of belonging that started from childhood. For the most part they are attached to groups and work hard to further the aims of those groups. So part of their view of a network is really about teams.

Rather than seeing an organization as a bunch of discrete individuals connected by circumstance, Millennial s see a team with a common purpose, which they likely are trying to further. Working hard for a company is probably about more than making money or hanging with friends. It is also about being a special part of something you truly believe in for Millennial s.

The visual representation of this would be something more along the lines of:

relationship-networks-01

Where I am part of something much larger (college in the case above). Now if I went looking for a job, I might think of the extension of this network like this:

relationship-networks-05

And if I could include other networks as well:

relationship-networks-06

If you compare this directly with the Gen X view, you can see the similarity: Both have three groups with overlap. But the key difference is how the individual at the center sees themselves relating to that group. Are they part of that group, or connected to individuals in that group?

But what really happens when that theoretical Millennial looks for a job by asking for help from their college friends? Probably the same thing that happens for a Gen-X’er: one friend calls another who puts them in touch with someone else. But the feeling a Millennial gets from this is very different than an X’er. They get the feeling they are part of something even bigger, rather than feeling like they are individuals navigating a twisty and difficult network. These feelings are not made up, they are real, because they are shared by an entire generation. Giving a helping hand for a Millennial means something very different than for an X’er. Teamwork is a strong value.

The Noise is the Signal

Another way to view these sorts of interactions is how transactional they are in nature. Many of the personal interactions I have are very transactional, particularly in business. I send an IM to someone asking for a specific piece of information or to take care of a task. I might email them with a brief explanation of something that needs to get done and then expect a return message asking for clarification or adjustment. While I find I can connect well with other Gen X’ers by phone or in-person, these electronic mediums seem better for handling transactions of one sort or another.

This is definitely not the case for many Millennial s. Sending 100 text messages a day, most with “? RU” or something similar is probably fairly common. You can see this sort of constant chatter on Facebook and Myspace (and Twitter before that). The transaction is not the important thing here at all, it’s like a constant casual conversation.

While a Gen X’er like me sees much of this as noise, for Millennial s the noise is the signal. It’s like a pulse of their community (as wide and diverse as that may be). As an X’er I am pretty well blind to it, and I am waiting for the transaction (which will probably never arrive).

What does it all mean?

I started by mentioning two online social networking tools, Linkedin and Facebook. In many ways these tools are good examples of the contrasts between these two generations. Facebook was created by a Millennial, LinkedIn by a Gen-X’er. On Facebook you are part of big networks (hometown, college, etc…) and LinkedIn is all about the individuals that you know. But both can be very effective for making connections, depending on what you are after.

To sum up:

  • Gen X’ers see a network as connected individuals
  • Millennial’s see a network as a community

The important thing to understand is that they are both true, regardless of the network you are talking about. Just because a Gen X’er can’t see the forest for the trees in a community, it does not mean the community does not exist. And both generations can learn from each other when it comes to relationships and community. Gen-X’ers are independent and may seem mercenary in their attitude, but we understand the dynamics of a network very well. Millennials can benefit for working with Gen-X’ers to see the individual goals in an organization. Gen-X’ers can learn a greater sense of trust in community and organizations from Millenials. Let the lessons begin!